Jenée Desmond-Harris is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Absolutely mortified: I’m from England, and my boyfriend is from the States. Things are pretty serious enough between us, enough that we flew him up to meet the extended family on my side, including my gran. Most of the family was lukewarm to him; no real hostility or anything, but he’s a foreigner and strange and they didn’t like his dry sense of humor. Gran, however, took an almost instant liking to him, and pulled me aside to congratulate me on him.
Then she went on to say how Americans are much bigger “down there” and she knows this because during the war, she “played house” with an American soldier that was stationed up here. She then went into fairly graphic detail about ways to have safe and enjoyable sex with someone with a large penis. I was blushing right up to my hairline hearing all of this, and it was only afterwards that I remembered that Gran was born in 1930, meaning that if this happened during WWII, she’d have been like 13-15 years old.
I am absolutely mortified by this knowledge and don’t know how I can look her in the eye. I usually go back to the home area during the uni holidays, and I don’t know how I can get out of seeing her, or explain to everyone why I decided not to go back home. Can you help?
A: Okay, I can totally get why this made you cringe, but I would think a grandmother talking about sex in explicit detail, mixed with weird stereotypes, would fall into the “extremely awkward thing you might joke about with your friends” category rather than the “reason never to see her again” category. The fact that she was so young—arguably too young to consent, even though that may not have been seen quite the same way back then—does add another complicating layer that you’re well within your rights to find disturbing. But, again—do you really want to end your relationship and skip seeing your entire family over this?
I think you should go home during your holiday and decide what you’ll say if she starts with the X-rated comments again. For example, “Gran please stop. I don’t want to talk about sex with you.” Or “Gran, you were only 13 at the time and it upsets me to hear about this. Please don’t bring it up again.” There’s no law against people over a certain age talking about their sex lives, so she deserves at least one warning about how uncomfortable it makes you before you start avoiding her.
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Q. Unfunny husband: I’ve been with my husband for four years total, and we’ve been married for two. Prior to him, I was in an emotional and occasionally physically abusive relationship.
While I don’t have any concerns about my marriage, my husband jokes constantly in a way that triggers me. For instance, he’ll demand coffee in the morning and won’t budge until I respond. Then he’ll laugh it off. Or he’ll demand a sandwich, then not laugh after, so I never know when he’s joking or serious. I usually just ignore him, but I end up rejecting him in bed. I don’t want to be touched by someone who triggers my PTSD.
How do I address this without making him feel like he’s abusing me? Or without hurting his feelings? (He’s super sensitive.)
A: I realize this would represent a big shift, especially given the ways you’ve probably had to think and behave to survive in a physically abusive relationship, but what if you were to tell him the truth about how his comments affect you without worrying about how this makes him feel? Of course you’re not going to be cruel or unkind—you’re simply going to say, “When you [example of one of his jokes], it makes me feel [the way it makes you feel], and I don’t like that I’m often not even sure if you’re joking or serious when you ask me to do something.”
I believe you that he might get sensitive and upset, but that’s not the worst thing in the world! You’ll both survive it. And maybe it will even lead him to listen to you and make improvements. If it doesn’t, don’t hesitate to take some time apart; if your PTSD is being triggered by his behavior as it is, you don’t have a lot to lose in this relationship. It can only get better, and the first step is starting to believe that your feelings matter as much as his.
Q. Their place or mine: I recently invited good friends of mine to go out to dinner at a local restaurant and meet the man I am dating. They agreed and scheduled a babysitter for their two young children. COVID numbers are high in our area and my boyfriend decided a few days after we confirmed the dinner plans that he didn’t feel comfortable eating inside a restaurant. I suggested that we get takeout and eat at my place. When I told my friends these modified plans, they said that if we were just getting takeout, that we should just go to their place after their kids are asleep so they don’t have to get a sitter.
Am I a jerk if I say that I would rather eat at my place? Introducing them to my boyfriend is a big deal to me (I have had terrible luck in love and this is my first relationship in 10 years), and I’d really like to have them over to my place for a nice dinner—even if it is just takeout. Because they have children, I always go to their place and they have never even been to my house, and getting a sitter is not a financial strain for them.
A: No, you’re not a jerk. Just explain to them what you wrote here: “Actually, would it be okay if we did it at my house? This is my first relationship in years and introducing him to you two is a big deal, and I really wanted to host and do it on my home turf where I’m most comfortable.”
But I wouldn’t assume that getting a sitter isn’t a financial strain for them. You never really know what’s going on in other people’s bank accounts—who knows, they could appear wealthy but be battling gambling addictions and in major debt! That’s extreme, but you get what I mean. So out of consideration for the fact that they normally spring for child care only when the activity they want to do makes staying home with the kids impossible, and the fact that they’re choosing the less practical option for meeting your boyfriend to make you happy, maybe offer to split the cost of babysitting with them.
Q. Tick tock: This is low stakes, but I am curious about your take. My friend often runs late—not just a little late, but a lot later. She will arrive 90-120 minutes after our agreed upon time. She rarely texts or calls to let me know she is running late. When I broached this gently, e.g. “please let me know if you are running more than 20 minutes late,” she countered that my request reeked of white supremacy and oppression. For context, I am white and she is Black.
I don’t want to be in the position of telling a Black person in America how to feel about racism or white supremacy, but her response really bothered me. I let the issue drop. I like to think I am open to feedback about my own bias/racism etc., so I am trying to question if I feel defensive because she spoke the truth or if I am justified in being annoyed with her chronic extreme tardiness. What are your thoughts? How can I sensitively navigate this situation?
A: If this in fact really happened (which I find hard to believe, but what do I know?), I am sure your friend manages to be on time for events that matter to her, and for plans with people who she respects. I think she used this line on you because she knows you’re sensitive to racism and want to do the right thing, and she was well-aware that it would make you feel awful and let her get away with wasting your time.
Even if she was really being sincere, well, she’s entitled to the way she feels. But you’re also entitled to decide you don’t like waiting around for two hours. And if there’s not a way to avoid that without her feeling like you’re oppressing her, then maybe this friendship has run its course. The next time she asks you to meet up, you can say “I’d really love to, but I’d need to leave by 9:00 and I heard what you said in our last conversation about how you won’t be able to commit to show up on time and I respect that, so I have to pass—maybe we can try to catch each other on the phone when we’re both free.”
Q. A romance for the books: I am a transgender woman. For the first few years after I transitioned, I identified as a lesbian, but I’ve since come to identify as bisexual (or more precisely, demisexual and biromantic) and I am currently in a relationship with a trans man whom I absolutely adore. (He’s also demi and bi, incidentally.)
This is going to be our first holiday season together, and I’m debating over gifts. He’s mentioned in the past that when people ask him what he wants for the holidays, he usually says that he wants a book that is important to them, which I think is a delightful idea. When I transitioned, I chose my new name based on characters from two books that had been particularly meaningful to me, so one of those books seems like the obvious choice for what to give him. But another friend of his has already given him one of those books, so that one’s ruled out. The other one is a classic YA lesbian novel that I first read at 14 and which helped confused little middle-school me figure out that, yes, it’s OK to be a girl who likes girls. It was the first queer book of any sort that I ever read and retains a special place in my heart to this day, and so I’d love to share it with my partner, but seeing as it’s a lesbian love story and he’s a man, I worry that it might be terribly tactless of me. Should I pick a different book? (I’m a lifelong bookworm, so I’ve got plenty of options.) Or am I overthinking this?
A: He said he’d like a book that is important to the gift-giver. He didn’t say he likes for the gift-giver to select a book that reminds them of him or has a plot that parallels his life. The book you’ve picked out sounds like a great choice, and you should go ahead and give it to him. To avoid any possible confusion about the message you’re sending with this choice, put a note inside the cover that says you remember what he said about the kind of books he likes to read, and explains why this one has a special place in your heart.
Q. Re: Absolutely mortified: In addition to what was said, it might be that this happened later than you think in gran’s life. Many of the conditions associated with the war, such as large numbers of U.S. servicemen, rationing, etc., continued much longer in the U.K. I know I have U.K. friends who lived through that era who still talk about 1946-1947 as “the war.” So if gran was 16 or 17, the serviceman could have been 18 or 19. So it might not have been what you are imagining.
A: This is good to know, and moves the story slightly away from “legitimately upsetting” and toward simply “cringe.” Hope it helps the letter writer.
Q. Re: Unfunny husband: If he knows about the abuse in your previous relationship, then he is either unfeeling and clueless, or cruel. This is not “unfunny,” it is abuse. Tell him to stop it NOW. And ignore his requests for a sandwich, coffee, etc., until he starts to make it clear when he’s serious and when he’s “joking.” Please get some therapy to learn how to deal with this more effectively and self-protectively.
A: That’s a really good point. And therapy could be incredibly helpful here.
Jenée Desmond-Harris: We’re going to wrap it up here. Thanks, everyone! And have a great week.
From How to Do It
I’m a man in my late 30s. My wife and I have three young children and a satisfying sex life. We have a closed relationship and, although I fantasize about other women and watch porn, I don’t want to hook up with anyone else.
Also, I love dancing. I like to dance at home alone or with my kids, with my wife at a party, and (very occasionally) out with friends at a bar or club. I’m conventionally handsome and a better dancer than people expect, and I sometimes end up dancing with strangers when I’m out, especially when it starts getting late. I’m generally open to dancing platonically with anyone who has a nice vibe, but if I’m attracted to a dance partner and they’re signaling that they’re into it, I’ll dance … non-platonically.